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Digital divide PART 2

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[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on broadband access. The Heber Springs Sun Times and its sister newspapers in central Arkansas, along with freelance writer Jay Brakefield, collaborated on this effort.]

Arkansas has become one of the best states in the nation in providing broadband internet service to its schools, spending $37.1 million in federal wi-fi funding within the past five years to upgrade its internet networks.

Now, 99 percent of the state’s schools have internet service with speeds of 1Mps. However, internet access away from schools, especially in rural school districts, access can be spotty or too expensive for some families.

Last week a $274,749 grant from the Arkansas Rural Connect Program was approved to help Bethesda Wireless provide broadband in the Cushman area.

“When you see the impact of COVID-19 by damages to the education of our youth, due to lack of access to broadband, it is a privilege to be a partner in securing these resources,” This availability will also help with the ability to stream media services for households,” said Robert Griffin, Independence County Judge.

The demand for faster internet speed is not projected to decline anytime soon.

Zach Harber is Director of Career and Technical Education with the University of Arkansas Community College Batesville. Harber has been nominated to lead the county’s economic development efforts.

“Rural students enrolled in K-12, colleges, or universities will now be able to access instruction in a timelier manner, which has a direct impact on the preparedness of our emerging workforce,” Harber said.

CARES funds also flowed to education. The first round of funding provided $128.8 million to school districts and the state Education Department. The money has been used for Chromebook and laptop computers, personal protective equipment and hot spots, distributed to students who lack good internet access at home. State money and contributions from T-Mobile have also helped provide the hot spots. Some districts have installed hot spots on buses, and students who still can’t get a good connection at home can hook onto wi-fi at schools and other sites.

A second round of CARES funding will channel $558 million to Arkansas education. Districts learned of this in mid-January and were beginning the process of determining how the money would be used.

Of the state’s 263 school districts, 188 school systems say they can provide internet access through wi-fi hotspots and “other” types of access, according to a recent survey conducted by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. That leaves 55 districts with limited internet for students away from campuses.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in July that T-Mobile, a wireless phone service, will provide up to 18,000 mobile hotspots to Arkansas schools and its students, to help increase coverage. Usage is free for five years and includes 100 gigabits of data per year for each eligible household.

It may sound good, but in rural school areas, access is still a problem.

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues and soon enters its second year in the U.S., schools are relying more on virtual learning. The state has helped its schools have better internet access in its facilities. The state Department of Education reported that 727 school facilities in the state have fiber infrastructure and only two school buildings still need scalable broadband service.

The cost for the state in providing broadband in Arkansas has decreased by 78 percent since 2015, dropping from $8.34 per Mpbs to $1.80 per Mpbs.

“In Arkansas, our students are developing 21st century skills in the classroom to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce,” Hutchinson said in a news release. “This requires high-speed internet access in every school – which is why we upgraded the Arkansas Public School Computer Network and can now provide 1 megabit per second per student in 98 percent of the school districts in Arkansas.

“The fast-paced learning environment must not be slowed by insufficient broadband,” Hutchinson said in the release.

One program that offers virtual learning course opportunities across the state is Virtual Arkansas. The program, which is not an online high school or diploma-granting site, supplements education for area schools. With classes offered in 220 school districts, Virtual Arkansas serves a majority of the state, said executive director John Ashworth.

“We supplement courses and teachers,” Ashworth said. “It’s why we exist.”

The program, which began in 2013, has seen a 41-percent increase in enrollment last fall due to the pandemic. When it began eight years ago, Virtual Arkansas had a few thousand students enrolled in courses offered online. Now, over 20,000 students use the service each semester.

Virtual Arkansas offers coursework that smaller, rural schools may not be able to provide because of resources, instructors or money.

“The state focused on broadband access in Arkansas,” Ashworth said. “As far as that is concerned, we are at the pinnacle. We’re the best in the nation. Our schools are very connected.

“But with internet coverage, the state ranks 48th out of 50,” he said. “The issue is not access at schools. Our issue comes down to internet access at home.”

In the past five years, internet coverage has increased, Ashworth said. In 2015, 85 percent of homes in the state reported having internet connection. Last year, that rose to 93 percent. “That’s indicative that hot spots are making an impact,” he said. “I feel the door is being opened [for more internet access]. It’s hard to close that door when we’re giving students these opportunities. We’re always trying to offer more courses. Students in rural areas are now having the same opportunities as those in urban areas.”

Educators say they hope internet services reach further into rural areas, especially as the pandemic continues. With improvements in connectivity, more students can receive better education.

“It’s a question of equity,” Ashworth said. “Everyone should be offered the same chance.”

The current public health crisis has also exacerbated the need for rural access to broadband access for those seeking to get telehealth appointments or simply sign up online to get tested for COVID-19 or schedule the vaccine. Within two months of the pandemic, an estimated 9 million Medicare recipients across the country relied on telemedicine. Private health insurers also said claims increased by more than 4,000 percent for telemedicine visits.

Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care’s chief executive officer Ray Hanley said Arkansas is one of the last states to develop liberal telemedicine options. Because of earlier state laws, Arkansans were hindered in trying to claim telemedicine sessions on their insurance.

In 2017, an Arkansas law required that first-time visits with medical professionals must be done in-person before anyone is even eligible for claiming telemedicine consultations on their insurance. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has since loosened that regulation, allowing for a pause on that requirement during the pandemic.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report indicates that 20 percent of all medical visits in the U.S. last year were done by virtual care. The service’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found that older adults, who first expressed concerns about telemedicine in 2019, were finding their fears eased in 2020, especially after experiencing a virtual visit with a physician of their own.

The Health and Human Services department invested $8 million in a program to address gaps in rural telemedicine in its Telehealth Broadband Pilot Program. Under the program’s auspices, rural internet services in Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia were studied. It selects appropriate technologies to offer better telehealth care services.

The Federal Office of Rural Health Care Policy also awarded a $1.5 million grant through the University of Arkansas to evaluate its own rural Telehealth Broadband Pilot program in the state.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced last year that video telehealth appointments to veterans increased more than one thousand-fold as veterans increasingly chose virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System has conducted nearly 10,000 telehealth appointments between January and the end of June.

The VA is also taking strides to bridge the digital divide for veterans who lack the technology or broadband internet connectivity required to participate in VA telehealth services. At the national level, VA is working with strategic partners through the Secretary’s Center of Strategic Partnerships to increase access to technology needed for veterans to connect with their care team virtually

Patients still have to go in for blood lab tests, which some insurance providers require before prescriptions can be refilled.

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